Are Conversation Classes Really Effective?

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Teaching English as a Foreign Language involves many different aspects: teaching vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, listening and speaking. For most of us, we have lessons dedicated to each of these elements, and other lessons which provide a combination of all of these.

One popular example of the latter is conversation classes

What are conversation classes?

Conversation classes are lessons in which students spend the time discussing a specific topic with their classmates and the teacher. 

These lessons are usually very popular with students – because they are basically having a conversation with their friends!

Conversation classes can seem like a dream; you can just let your students talk for an hour, right? Wrong. 

Conversation classes can be a lot of fun, but the big question remains: are they effective in teaching language?

Are conversation classes effective?

Well, the truth is they can go either way.

There is a time and a place for frivolous chat with your students and the classroom is not it. 

Now of course we don’t mean that there shouldn’t be any talking in your lessons. On the contrary, your students should be doing loads of talking in your lessons, but remember that a conversation EFL lesson is not the same as having a fat chat with your students. 

Your students can have a chat anywhere anytime and it will not necessarily lead to learning.

But if done properly, conversation classes can be highly effective learning tools. 

Adult students engaging in a conversation class

What is the purpose of a conversation class?

Conversation classes which are simply opportunities for students to talk to each other without any or much involvement or input from the teacher are useful in building confidence and practising effective communication techniques, but that’s probably about it. 

This is useful for consolidation work and for building fluency. But if unstructured they might not achieve the aims you hoped for.

Conversation classes let our students talk.

Read more: Accuracy And Fluency: What’s The Big Deal?

 

So how can you make an English conversation class contribute to learning English?

What makes a good conversation class?

For a conversation class to be useful, there needs to be input, clarification and error correction

  • The class needs to incorporate vocabulary building or grammar practice in some way

Make sure you have a list of vocabulary items related to the topic which will be new to the students, so that there can be some form of vocabulary building. 

Present these items at the beginning of the lesson or introduce them during the lesson so that the students can practise using them in their conversations. 

At the same time brainstorm language already familiar to the students so that there is an element of revision as well.

  • The teacher needs to be available to help with communication

While the students should have free reign to say what they want to say, the teacher should be around should they need help in formulating the content of their ideas or opinions. 

This needs to be done quietly and discreetly. The students must know you are happy to answer questions but you should try not interrupt the flow of the conversation too much.

  • The students need to know that their language use is correct. 

The teacher should make use of error correction techniques during the conversation, as well as take some time to focus on general errors at the end of the lesson. 

Though you may feel this is intimidating or invasive, you’ll find that students enjoy error correction because it provides them the opportunity to notice their progress.

If these elements are not present, the lesson would simply replicate any conversation your students have outside the classroom with other learners.  

On the other hand, if a conversation lesson is well-planned and prepared and the lesson is scaffolded throughout, there is no reason why a conversation lesson shouldn’t be an enjoyable, productive lesson.

Read more: Cool Conversation Topics For Teenagers

Teen EFL students working together

Top tips for increasing the effectiveness of conversation lessons

  1. Clarify the purpose of the lesson

“Speaking” cannot be considered a satisfactory aim because it is too broad. There are many different elements involved in speaking, such as asking for or giving an opinion, interrupting, turn-taking or telling an anecdote. 

Identifying what the aim of the lesson is will direct the activities of the lesson. Only when you have a clear aim can you evaluate whether or not it has been accomplished.

  1. Decide what input is necessary

Conversation classes needn’t only be about skills. They can be a great opportunity to introduce a vocabulary set or consolidate a language point. 

In other words, the language input can be as specific as adjectives to describe places or as vague as how to make small talk. Making a decision as to what should be included in the lesson will help further define your lesson, just be sure not to be too ambitious.

  • Choose your topic carefully.

Topics for conversation classes need to relate to your students’ interests and capabilities. Adult learners can handle more complex topics than, say, teen learners, but be careful about any sensitive topics for your students.

Read more: Should We Be Talking About PARSNIPS In The EFL Classroom?

  1. Provide a model

It’s much easier to follow and copy a model than to try and imagine the correct way of doing something. 

Whatever your aims and target language, provide an example for your students. This can either be yourself, a video or a listening text.

  1. Give feedback at the end of the lesson

This is very important not only for the students to feel like they have accomplished something in the lesson, but to ensure that your students leave the lesson being able to use the target language effectively and appropriately.

 

What are the benefits of conversational learning?

Having discussions on topics is a way of introducing new vocabulary related to the topic or of revising known vocabulary. Once the students have a solid grasp of appropriate vocabulary, it’s easier for them to speak about the topic.

Conversation helps our learners improve their speaking and listening skills. It builds confidence, and develops fluency.

 

It provides an opportunity for our learners to practise their language learning in authentic situations.

 

This reflects the real-life usage of their English in the world outside the classroom.

Activities for conversation classes

Conversation and communication are the basis for ESL lessons. It’s helpful to have a stash of conversation questions ready to bring into the classroom, no matter the topic. 

Here are the most popular conversation topics in an EFL classroom:

  • Family (members and relationships)
  • Work (your job) or school (your classes)
  • Best friend (and what makes him/her a friend)
  • Something you really like about yourself
  • Something you experienced and will never forget
  • If you could be someone else, who would you be?
  • What would you do with a million dollars?
  • Would you rather…?

 

Read more: EFL Discussion Questions

AdobeStock 462201757

These topics all form the basis for most coursebooks. It is logical then that they will be used as conversation topics, usually as introductory exercises for the unit. 

One activity idea is to come up with a set of discussion questions yourself. 

This is easy enough, especially if you have a staffroom of teachers whose brains you can pick. To make it a bit more challenging for your students, give the sentences to your students in a jumbled order so that they need to reconstruct the questions before they can discuss them.

You can also divide the questions into two parts and put the students into pairs, each with a different half of the set of questions. This will then incorporate a listening aspect to the activity as they ask each other their questions, as they do not have the same questions.

Or, let the students come up with the questions themselves. Allow them some time to come up with some ideas and then divide them into groups where they can ask each other their questions and spend some time discussing their answers.

Another interesting idea is to bring into the classroom recent newspaper or magazine headlines which are related to the topic. Students can then discuss the specifics of those stories (or predict them if they are not sure) and this can be the basis for a discussion.

Mimic real-life situations by playing music or having students discussing in small groups at the same time. In this way they will need to take turns naturally and compete with background noise. 

How do you make a conversation class interesting?

Obviously, this depends on your students. What will be interesting for one class could be boring for another. If you choose your discussion topics wisely and know your class well, then conversation classes are very likely to be interesting for your students.

Alternatively, be unprepared (but don’t tell anyone we said that!). Try a Dogme approach and construct a lesson plan based on the mood of the class. This approach requires no preparation but it does require experience and self-confidence in your teaching skills. 

This approach is naturally interesting to your students because they essentially come up with the lesson topic and focus themselves. In other words, it’s based on their immediate needs.

Read more: What Is Teaching Unplugged And How Do I Do It?

Have informal conversation classes. These are often called conversation clubs. If we change the label of an English lesson, students will naturally change their mindsets towards it.

Do a speed-dating activity. Pair the students up. Give them a topic to discuss for three minutes. Once the time is up, students change partners and discuss a new topic.

Lastly, have fun! If you’re enjoying yourself, the students will pick that up and enjoy themselves too!

 

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